Just about every communication guru on the face of the planet will tell you active listening is foundational for great interaction. When you do it properly, you focus on what the other person is saying to you, not just taking in the words, but really trying to understand the intent, scope and implications of the message. But how do you actually get better at focusing like this? How can you become laser-attentive, instead of just giving the false impression to the speaker you're on board?

Control your space.

Smartphone alerts, Joe Schmoe from accounting walking by, an uncomfortable chair--there are a million and one things that can momentarily steal your attention away from the conversation. Try to communicate in a location that's more contained and comfortable, or at the very least, familiar. It's perfectly fine to invite someone into a quieter room and close the door, turn chairs away from the hustle and bustle, or turn off your technology. Just be honest--flatter them by telling them you want to give them your full attention!

Watch their body language.

Words are only part of a speaker's message. The other half, that is, the reality of how the person feels in the moment about the message, is often hidden in their facial expressions, gestures, and stance. When you observe this area carefully, you:

  • Get a better sense of how truthful the individual is being.
  • Are more likely to remember the message, because thanks to mirror neurons, the emotional cues within the speaker's body language will trigger emotional responses in you that help your brain encode the information and overall experience.

Don't answer right away.

If you watch great speakers, you'll notice they often pause as they talk. They take the time to choose their words carefully and to make sure what they're verbalizing is appropriate with the right "feel." In the same way, pausing before you respond in a conversation gives you a chance to leave your ego behind. Instead of spewing a rapid-fire response in the hope of looking smart, you get a chance to analyze what just happened. In the pause, not as the person still speaks, try to ask yourself

  • What was the one key point communicated?
  • Were there any giveaways in the language, such as buzzwords or powerful verbs?
  • How do I feel about what they said?
  • Did anything they said confuse me and require clarification?
  • What do I know about the key point that's both relevant and helpful?
  • What open-ended question can I ask to get more or deeper information?

Most people won't mind the pause. They usually appreciate the fact you're taking them seriously enough to really think!

Summarize based on perceived intent.

Communication experts will tell you to repeat back what you've heard. But don't make the mistake of interpreting this to mean parroting (e.g., John stole pens, so "What I'm hearing is, John stole all the pens.")! Parroting shows you've taken in information, but it doesn't show you've analyzed or really reacted to it. Instead of focusing on regurgitating, think in terms of needs or desires, which is why the speaker is talking to you in the first place. For example, "What I'm hearing is, John upset you by stealing, and you need some help getting him to stop." This kind of summary is much more validating to the speaker and forces you to pinpoint the purpose for the communication. The speaker still has a chance to correct you if your perception is off.

But here's the key. It's a rarity for people to just come right out and reveal their needs and desires in the first go-round. It usually takes a little back and forth in the conversation before you have enough pieces of the puzzle to see what someone is after. Be patient and offer your summary only when you've talked long enough to perceive the big picture. Otherwise it will seem forced and unnatural.

As a final bonus tip, psychologically, it usually helps to go into a conversation telling yourself you're equal to your partner. Part of the reason listening is so hard is because we subconsciously are always trying to reassure ourselves of status and power--we want to make sure for ourselves and prove to others we have the authority to speak. Maybe you have different titles or experiences than your partner, but you're both just people. In that sense, you are automatically entitled to half the conversation right out of the gate. Use the knowledge of this fact to resist being overbearing and to reassure yourself you'll get your turn, because the more you actively listen, the more people actually want to hear what you have to say.